Adaptation to different ecological environments can, through divergent selection, generate phenotypic and genetic differences between populations, and eventually give rise to new species. The fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) has been proposed to represent an early stage of ecological speciation, driven by differential habitat adaptation through the deposition and development of larvae in streams versus ponds in the Kottenforst near Bonn (Germany). We set out to test this hypothesis of ecological speciation in an area different from the one where it was raised and we took the opportunity to explore for drivers of genetic differentiation at a landscape scale. A survey over 640 localities demonstrated the species’ presence in ponds and streams across forests, hilly terrain and areas with hedgerows (‘bocage’). Genetic variation at 14 microsatellite loci across 41 localities in and around two small deciduous forests showed that salamander effective population sizes were higher in forests than in the bocage, with panmixia in the forests (Fst < 0.010) versus genetic drift or founder effects in several of the small and more or less isolated bocage populations (Fst > 0.025). The system fits the ‘mainlandisland’ metapopulation model rather than indicating adaptive genetic divergence in pond versus stream larval habitats. A reanalysis of the Kottenforst data indicated that microsatellite genetic variation fitted a geographical rather than an environmental axis, with a sharp transition from a western pondbreeding to an eastern, more frequently stream-breeding group of populations. A parallel changeover in mitochondrial DNA exists but remains to be well documented. The data support the existence of a hybrid zone following secondary contact of differentiated lineages, more so than speciation in situ.

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Scientific Reports
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Arntzen, J., & van Belkom, J. (2020). ‘Mainland-island’ population structure of a terrestrial salamander in a forest-bocage landscape with little evidence for in situ ecological speciation. Scientific Reports, 10. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-58551-0